The University of Florida, home to the largest Jewish student body in the country, was for an on-campus speech on Thursday afternoon by white supremacist leader Richard Spencer.
Only six weeks after Hurricane Irma wrought destruction in Florida, Gov. Rick Scott declared another state of emergency, this time ahead of Spencer’s speech in Gainesville.
Some 9,400 Jewish students attend the university, which has an enrollment of 52,000.
The university allowed Spencer to speak after initially declining his request, saying that as a public institution it must uphold the principles of free speech. He was a promoter of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August that turned deadly.
Spencer, the founder of a white supremacist think tank, has advocated a white ethno-state that would exclude non-whites and Jews. The Anti-Defamation League said he has become “more openly anti-Semitic in recent years.”
“Our decision to disallow the September event was based on specific threats and a date that fell soon after the Charlottesville event,” the university said in a statement. “Allowing Spencer to speak in October provided additional time to make significant security arrangements.”
Although the event is not sponsored by any groups affiliated with the university, the public university must pay over $500,000 in security for the event. In 1992, the Supreme Court ruled that the government cannot charge a speaker for security costs due to potential protesters.
Chabad director Rabbi Berl Goldman said that dozens of Jewish students, parents and staff members had contacted him with worries regarding the event.
“I just received a call 10 minutes ago from a parent worried about his daughter that lives in a sorority,” he told JTA on Monday. “Another parent called my colleague, Rabbi Aron [Notik], the other Chabad rabbi here at UF, telling him that his daughter wants to know if she should attend classes or not.”
Law enforcement has been in touch with Chabad, which Goldman said will have “a very strong, armed security presence.”
The University of Florida is Spencer’s latest stop on a speaking tour that has riled U.S. campuses. In April, Auburn hosted the far-right speaker after a federal judge ordered it must. This month, Ohio State denied a speaking request by Spencer, while the University of Cincinnati approved it.
The Florida speech is his first campus appearance since the Charlottesville weekend, during which he led a a torch-lit march on the University of Virginia campus by neo-Nazis and other groups that at times chanted “Jews will not replace us.” Spencer was to be a featured speaker at the white-nationalist rally the next morning, but it was canceled due to security concerns. A woman was killed when a suspected white supremacist rammed his car into a crowed of counterprotesters.
Scott’s state of emergency order will allow local law enforcement officials to work with state and other agencies. The governor is also activating the Florida National Guard.
Norman Goda, a professor of Holocaust studies, dismissed the university’s argument that it had to host Spencer due to free speech.
“I think it’s been posed as a free speech issue as if he is just another right-wing speaker,” said Goda, naming figures such as “alt-right” provocateur Milo Yiannopolous and conservative political commentator Ann Coulter. “I think Spencer is a very different animal. He is the leader of a movement who it seems to me from everything he says is working for the violent overthrow of our constitutional system.”
Leah Gorshein, a 20-year-old political science and Jewish studies major, worries that the event could fuel a rise in campus anti-Semitism.
“We do have a really strong Jewish and pro-Israel base, so I have a lot of confidence in our students, but I am worried for their safety, and the anti-Israel and anti-Jewish movement that could arise from this,” said Gorshein, who serves as president of the Israel advocacy group Gators for Israel and sits on the Hillel student board.
Gorshein’s professors canceled classes on Thursday, and though she personally feels safe, she plans to either stay in her sorority house or go out of town, she said.
Brett Hartstein, a finance major and vice president of programming for Chabad, said he isn’t worried about his personal safety. Still, he won’t be going to class on Thursday, saying “I’ll just be with other students and do my lectures online.”
“I feel like it will be hard to focus in class that day, people will be anxious about other stuff,” Hartstein, 20, told JTA on Tuesday. “I’ll be able to get more studying, be more focused on the lecture by just watching it on my laptop by myself.”
Chabad is encouraging members of the Jewish community to heed a call by the university’s president, Kent Fuchs, to stay away from the event and is hosting a “good deed marathon” to provide “an opportunity to transform the message of hate into love, and of darkness into light,” Goldman said.
Goda’s students have expressed discomfort at Spencer’s Gainesville speech.
“I’ve spoken to enough to know that they’re bothered by the fact that he’s going to show up on their campus,” he said. “There’s one kid who actually works in the Phillips Center — that’s the place where he’s speaking — who was quite anxious about the whole thing.”
Goda said he urged the university to deny Spencer’s right to speak and instead allow the case to play out in court.
“He wanted to use us to burnish his academic bona fides and to give himself legitimacy, and I didn’t think that the University of Florida should acquiesce on this without a fight,” the professor said. “I didn’t think that we should be party to our own debasement without a serious public debate about what kind of speech was really covered and whether this was legitimate speech or deliberately incendiary speech.”